Dave McLellan: He Made the Corvette “World Class”

Dave McLellan: He Made the Corvette “World Class”

Story by John Gunnell

A biography posted on the Corvette Action Center Website  (www.corvetteactioncenter.com) describes David R. McLellan—Corvette Chief Engineer between 1975 and 1992—as the “Quiet Genius.” After spending some time chatting with Dave at Mike Yager’s Corvette Funfest, we can affirm that such a description hits the nail right on the head. It takes just a few minutes of talking to Dave to realize that he is soft-spoken, but extremely smart. You soon get the notion that his brain is constantly “in gear.”

Don’t expect quick answers from this man who has learned to look beyond the surface to solve problems or squeeze extra performance out of a car. In his book Corvette From the Inside: The 50 Year Development History, McLellan tells of why the reason for disc brake caliper corrosion didn’t show up in GM’s factory durability test program. “Aggressive stress-testing of a few cars, as important as it was, wasn’t going to find problems that were characterized by low probability of occurrence, or worst of all, easy driving and long months of storage,” he wrote.

Perhaps McLellan’s “do-it-right-the-first-time” approach to engineering came from growing up in Munising, a town in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula where folks have a little more time to think about problems. Or maybe he was taught to take the slow and sure approach at Wayne State University, the school he graduated from in 1959 with a Mechanical Engineering degree. Dave went to work for GM straight out of college, but later, in 1973, he attended MIT and the Sloan School of Management on his way to a Master of Science degree.

McLellan first became interested in cars and competed in the Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild while attending Redford High School in Detroit. His dad had actually pushed him towards a chemical engineering career, but mechanical things fascinated him much more and he shifted his college studies in that direction. He also edited the Wayne Engineer, a glossy 32-page magazine written by Wayne State engineering students. There is some tradition in this, since Zora Arkus-Duntov—who Dave replaced as Corvette Chief Engineer—had also been a writer for Auto Motor und Sport, a German auto magazine.

McLellan’s 33-year GM career started with a stint at the relatively new Milford Proving Ground in the Noise and Vibration Laboratory, where he was involved with the vehicle dynamics of cars, trucks and tanks. He married Glenda Roberts in 1965 and, in 1968, he got a new job. GM moved him over to the Vehicle Dynamics Test Area, a new facility it had built in Black Lake, Mich. There he developed great insights on automobile suspensions and handling.

In 1969, McLellan joined Chevrolet Motor Div. His first job there was to lead the Product Development Team that finished the 1970-1/2 Camaro. From there it was on to the GM Tech Center where John Z. DeLorean was pushing his idea to integrate the Corvette, Camaro and Nova on a single platform. Dave had responsibility for engineering the Camaro-Nova chassis.

In his book, McLellan explained that DeLorean charged him with making his idea work, but it did not work because the Corvette’s engine was mounted lower and further back in the chassis than the Camaro’s engine. This gave the Corvette a lower centre of gravity and lower cowl height. Blending the two would have made the Corvette too high and the Camaro too long. McClellan demonstrated this to DeLorean and Chevrolet management noticed his talent. As a result, he was chosen to attend MIT on a Sloan Fellowship.

In the summer of 1974, after earning his Master of Science degree, McLellan went to work as a staff engineer under Zora Arkus-Duntov—the man credited with changing the Corvette from a boulevard cruiser into a real sports car. Duntov had been the first and only Corvette Chief Engineer up to that point. That summer and fall, he spent time working on the next Corvette, while also tackling catalytic converter problems and doing a market feasibility study of a motor scooter that he ultimately nixed as an impractical product for GM. At the end of the year, Duntov retired and McLellan became the Corvette’s second Chief Engineer on Jan. 1, 1975. He had a tough act to follow.

Things were not rosy in Corvette-land in 1975. As Jerry Burton explains in his massive work Corvette: America’s Sports Car Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow the pundits at Car and Driver magazine had written that it would require “the faith of Moses” for GM brass to approve a new Corvette at that time. “McClellan and his team had inherited Corvette at a low point in its life cycle, after Zora Arkus-Duntov retired,” said Burton. GM was more worried about meeting new government safety and anti-pollution laws than it was about saving the Corvette.

History tells us that Dave McLellan did a great job filling Zora’s legendary shoes. Some credit the fact that McLellan is an “engineer’s engineer” as the main reason that he was able to ride out the ‘70s and revive the Corvette in the ‘80s. As automotive historian Mike Lamm once pointed out in a Corvette Fever story, “McLellan nearly always used science in planning where the Corvette ought to be headed. He made his judgments and decisions based on careful reasoning and calculation and rarely, if ever, let emotion enter.”

However, there are other historians who sense a boiling caldron of emotion under McLellan’s cool, “scientific” outer guise. He’s a man who has a passion for cars and who understands the legacy that Zora Arkus-Duntov built for the Corvette as a sports car, a racing car and a collector car. Dave McLellan possessed just the right blend of emotion and reason to both “feel” what the Corvette needed to be and to make it into that kind of car. He understood it was important to maintain the Corvette’s reputation as an innovative automobile and to always keep it one step ahead of the pack in appearance and performance.

On the emotional side of things, many collectible models were created during McLellan’s tenure as Corvette Chief Engineer. They included the “quick classic” 1978 Indy Pace Car, the 1978 Silver Anniversary, the 1982 Collector Edition, the 1984 C4, the return of the convertible body style in 1986, that year’s Indy Pace Car, the 1988-1989 Corvette Challenge series racing cars, the 1988 Corvette 35th Anniversary model, the 1990 ZR1 and the preliminary development work on the C5 that bowed in 1997. The one-millionth Corvette was also built.

McLellan’s feelings for the Corvette show through in a passage in his book in which he tells how he suggested introducing the 1986 roadster – the first Corvette ragtop in 10 years – at Yosemite National Park. It seems that he had toured the park in a ‘Vette convertible years before. “Even though it was October and the mornings were misty, every mile that I drove was with the top down,” he related. “Driving through the vastness of this fabulous place in an enclosed car just wouldn’t have been the same experience.” That’s why he proposed to Chevy PR chief Ralph Kramer that the car be introduced in Yosemite!

“McLellan was a visionary and saw no reason why Corvette could not compete with or beat the best sports cars in the world, even as a front-engined, rear-drive car,” says Jerry Burton in his book. “So, when he had the opportunity to create his own machine with the fourth-generation Corvette, he was not afraid to seek the best technology from around the world to create a Corvette that could go head-to-head with anything in the world.

Of course, McLellan’s engineering side helped keep every Corvette he was responsible for on the cutting edge of technology. In 1985, McLellan gave the Corvette tuned-port injection. He embraced anti-lock brakes long before the Corvette’s rivals did. The ultra-high-performance 1990-1995 ZR1 was another one of McLellan’s big achievements. He walked it through the development process from drawing board to assembly line. McLellan also adopted the ZF 6-speed manual transmission in 1989. His Corvette contributions were significant.

In 1990, Dave McLellan was awarded the prestigious Edward N. Cole Award for Automotive Engineering Innovation. Cole was the Chevrolet general manager who sired the Corvette, so it seemed fitting for the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) to present it to McLellan for his adaptation of technology to the Corvette platform. In 1992 – the year that he retired – McLellan introduced the 300-hp Chevy LT1 V-8 and the Anti-Slip Regulation (ASR) traction-control system. He is responsible for much of the design and engineering that was seen in the C5 platform introduced in 1997.

Unlike Duntov, McClellan did not reach mandatory retirement age at GM. He could have stayed on at that time, but he felt that things were changing at the company and that the time was right to take an early retirement package and pursue other things. Since he did that, Dave has enjoyed traveling to events like Funfest, where Corvette collectors gather. He often drives his own vintage Corvette to shows and has a great time meeting hobbyists, selling books and autographing anything a Corvette owner shoves in front of him.

McLellan also continues doing work as an automotive consultant and serves as a board member at Porsche Engineering Services in Troy, Mich. He is also a consultant to the Tank Automotive Command (TACOM). In 2002, Bentley publishers released Corvette From the Inside: The 50 Year Development History as told by Dave McLellan.


Keeping in Touch With Dave McLellan

Former Corvette Chief Engineer Dave McLellan has an Internet Website for ‘Vette enthusiasts. The man behind the ZR-1 and other world-class Corvettes can be hooked up with at www.corvettechief.com. Visitors to the site can listen to or subscribe to his podcast, which can also be found on iTunes by searching for “Corvette Chief.”

In one of the podcasts, McLellan talks about Corvette from the Inside — the book he wrote. In its pages, you get McLellan’s first-person perspective on the Corvette’s comeback during his tenure. He starts with the C3 Corvette and covers his own development of the C4. McLellan also gives his personal views on the C5 and C6 cars built during his successor Dave Hill’s reign.

The book covers Corvettes from day one and it is interesting to get Dave’s perspective on the marque’s early days. Along with the free podcast, autographed copies of the book are available on the Website.

Categories: Features, Muscle Car Plus